MANDINGO 1975 director: Richard Fleischer; starring: James Mason, Perry King, Ken Norton, Susan George, Brenda Sykes, Ji-Tu Cumbuka
There are over 200 blaxploitation movies, ranging from the classic to the completely forgotten. But few have attained the level of infamy that MANDINGO has achieved. This is one of those films with a reputation that precedes it, conjuring up all sorts of lurid images. And that’s not to say that MANDINGO’s reputation as a sweaty bit of racist sexploitation trash is not well-deserved, ‘cause it is. It’s just that of all the blaxploitation films that have lingered in the collective pop-culture consciousness, it qualifies as neither the very best, nor the very worst. In fact, in some ways – especially when compared to so many of the other films of the era and genre – MANDINGO can be a bit mediocre.
Set on an old Southern plantation in the 1840s, the film finds plantation and slave owner Warren Maxwell (Mason), fretting over his only son, Hammond (King). It seems that Pa Maxwell wants Hammond to settle down, find a wife and cultivate the fruit of his loins. The problem is that Hammond pretty much only has a hankering for the chocolate variety of poontang. Still, Hammond agrees to marry Blanche (George), who happens to be his cousin (sometimes white people do nasty shit like that). Unbeknownst to Hammond, Blanche isn’t exactly a virgin, as it turns out she was doing the tango-skin polka with her brother (I told you, white people do some nasty shit). Well, since Hammond has popped a few cherries of some of comely slave wenches, he knows what pristine hootchie is supposed to feel like. And since his new wife’s quim is fitting him more like a well-worn shoe than a tight glove, he suspects something is amiss. This drives him back into the open legs of his favorite slave girl, Ellen (the boner-riffic Sykes), which of course makes Blanche lose her mind. Now, while all of this is going on, there’s the matter of Mede (Ken Norton) the Maxwell’s prime piece of property – a 100% pure-bred Mandingo slave, complete with an ankle-slapping trouser snake. When Blanche has finally had enough of Hammond’s cold-shoulder treatment, she decides to exact revenge by fucking his prize slave. The problem is that Mandingo cock is especially addictive to white women, and before you know it, Blanche is riding Mede’s Johnson like it was rollercoaster at Disneyland. When Blanche has a baby that everyone is expecting to be Hammond’s, it comes out looking more like a Milkdud, and the shit hits the fan, leading to a massacre that culminates in Mede being boiled alive. And the moral of the story is it’s okay for a white guy to get some black pussy, but if a black guy throws a hump into some white nookie, he’ll probably get killed for it.
There’s really no way around it – MANDINGO is a downright sleazy film. The whole film is build around the salaciously taboo thrill of watching white people and black people humping. Keep in mind that this was 1975, and stuff like that was still considered really out there (not that we’ve progressed that much in the last four decades). But despite the whole sexploitation element of the film – something made all the more sleazy by the fact that the film was sold as some sort of historical epic – MANDINGO offers an interesting cinematic glimpse at the antebellum South. This is not the glamorized Dixie of Hollywood’s past, as depicted in films like GONE WITH THE WIND or THE LITTLEST REBEL. Instead, this is the nasty-ass South where human beings we bought and sold as chattel (and where Li’l John and the Eastside Boyz would rise to fame).
Over the years critics have blasted MANDINGO for being a terrible film, charges that I’m really in no position to argue (although I wouldn’t call it terrible and unwatchable). Critics have also blasted it for being a piece of racist trash, and while I would agree with the trashy part, it is no less racist than the culture and era it depicts – we’re talking about slavery for fuck’s sake, people!!! As far as I’m concerned, I appreciate a movie about slavery where things are a bit unpleasant, blacks suffer, and whites come across as racist scum. Something tells me once you strip away the some of the sexual shenanigans (but not all), MANDINGO is closer to the truth than GONE WITH THE WIND could ever hope to be. In fact, I know that’s the case, because GONE WITH THE WIND is a piece of racist propaganda of the worst kind. Yeah…I said it.
Ji-Tu Cumbuka in MANDINGO
Only in the 1970s could a film like MANDINGO get made, and it stands as a shining example of how the changing times were reflected in the blaxploitation films of the era. And I’m not just talking about the blatant sexuality of the film, but also in the militant politics that serve as one of the film’s only compelling elements. Ji-Tu Cumbuka has a co-starring roll in the film as Cicero, a rebellious slave who gives voice the popular militancy that found its way into most black-themed films of the 1970. Cicero tries to escape the Maxwell plantation, only to be captured and sentenced to death. Before he is hung, he gives a speech that makes my heart swell with pride. “I ain’t goin’ to give no lifetime of misery and sweat to these peckerwoods. I’d rather die than be a slave! You, perkerwoods, that’s right! You peckerwoods was oppressed in your own land. We was free, and you brought us here, in chains. But now, we here. And you just better know, this is much our land as it is your’n. And after you hang me, kiss my ass!”
MANDINGO was based on a novel by Kyle Onstott, which was turned into a stage play Jack Kirkland. I’ve never read the book (which was one of many slavery/sex books of the era), or seen a production of the play, but something tells me neither aren’t quite as graphically lurid as the film. Rockne Tarkington of BLACK SAMSON-fame starred in the stage version. Director Richard Fleischer was a long-time film veteran by the time he got behind the camera. His past credits included such classics as 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, FANTASTIC VOYAGE, and SOYLENT GREEN. By the time Fleischer directed MANDINGO, it was clear his career was in decline. His final films would include crap like CONAN THE DESTROYER and RED SONJA.
MANDINGO would spawn a pseudo-sequel, DRUM, also starring Ken Norton. It is also one of several entries into a bizarre sub-genre known as slavesploitation. Some of these were sexploitation films out of Europe, like GOODBYE, UNCLE TOM or PASSION PLANTATION, while others, like QUADROON, were homegrown flicks.